Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



A brief account of Lawson's successor throws some hindlight on Lawson's stay. W. H. Comerford, aged 52, was appointed on 22 November; he had passed the teachers' E examination.79 Although he was appointed on the understanding that his wife and family would accompany him, his wife was an invalid who could not leave Christchurch and needed their daughter to page 104look after her. The school reopened without a sewing-mistress.

Comerford arrived on 24 November and stayed with a fellow Freemason who lived in the district-Walter Gibson, the former county chairman. He complained (from 'Mangamanua') that he 'found the School-room and School-house in a filthy condition' and that the water tank was empty. De Castro had already advised Gibbes that Lawson had told him he had left the key of the house with Mrs Knight who undertook to leave it with the constable when she had cleaned the house.80 De Castro reported further that he had visited the school on 7 November.

Mr Lawson had left the school building quite clean and the furniture and books in order. The residence was properly cleaned out by the Maori woman with whom Mr Lawson arranged to have it done. During the interval between Mr Lawson's departure (about end of Octr) and Mr Comerford's arrival on Wednesday the 24th Nov. the inside of the school had been the habitation of birds, which had free access through an open window. Mr Comerford reported the matter to the Chairman of the school committee who undertook to get the school cleaned out. The Chairman says that he was unable to get the cleaning done until the following Saturday and it took a Maori woman about half a day to do it. … The residence is in a habitable condition, only a few small repairs enumerated … require attention. The tank was full of clear water.81

Habens replied to Comerford criticising his 'standard of zeal and straightforwardness'; the department privately suspected that he was loath to leave his friend's house to face the prospect of living alone and was at pains to justify his reluctance. After that Comerford's letters to the department were more polite and the handwriting more careful. But in March he told Gibbes again that the house required certain repairs before it was 'fit to inhabit'. De Castro insisted that the only room that needed re-papering was a small back room which 'Mrs Lawson used as a scullery and for washing purposes, there being no outbuildings'.

Walter Gibson, for reasons one can only guess at, wrote to the Minister of Education praising his ability as a teacher and asking that he be sent to a larger school than 'Mangumana'. For short periods during the year Gibson's two daughters acted page 105in turn as sewing-mistress. Comerford complained of 'the backward state' in which he had found the children.82

For all his initial reluctance to accept Mangamaunu, Comerford remained for twelve years and was well accepted by the community. Mrs Walsh remembered him clearly. He reintroduced singing for the first time since Danaher.83 He played the piano, to the accompaniment of fiddle and accordion, at public dances in the schoolhouse. Mr McAra, the Presbyterian minister who had visited the Lawsons (not McCawra, as Bertha spells it)* visited the school and, according to Comerford, expressed pleasure at 'the whole tone of the School'. The report at the end of 1898 noted that he did not use corporal punishment, his 'rule [was] evidently mild without being weak'. He had cleared the grounds of stone and had a neat border of flowers. 'The teacher is well thought of by Europeans and Maoris so far as I could learn: the relations between teacher and taught appear to be good…. This is a useful little school and I see no reason for closing it …'. Pope added that a member of the committee 'spoke highly of Mr Comerford's relations with the Maoris and of his work and influence…. I may add … that I nowhere heard anything to Mr Comerford's discredit'.84 R. Meredith, member of the House of Representatives for Ashley electorate, who visited the school, wired the Minister of Education that he was pleased with what he saw.

In 1899 with the arrival of the new settlers of the subdivided Puhipuhi estate the roll rose suddenly from eighteen to thirty-two; in 1900 there were more European children than Maori. Kirk reported: 'The recovery of this school is a most astonishing thing to me. It is now a promising school and there are several babies in the settlement. It is quite possible that the marked improvement in the way of living of the people accounts for this.'85 In this year every child who sat the examination passed.

But Comerford reported in May 1901 that attendance was falling, owing to influenza and the departure of several children with their parents to the whaling station. Pope considered whether the school should be transferred to the control of the North Canterbury and Marlborough Education Boards, but page 106concluded: 'it may be urged that it would be a pity to let the 13 Maoris attending, and their parents, suffer discouragement through the loss of their school'.86 In the same year the clerk of works reported that the school buildings were in a 'dirty and dilapidated condition'-the roof of the house leaked and every ceiling was stained; the closet, last blown down in 1898, was standing on its roof. W. W. Bird, newly appointed as inspector, calling in February 1902, found Comerford teaching outside while the repairs were being done.

Comerford carried on without assistance, except in 1904 when his daughter came up from Christchurch, till his retirement. Reports were consistently favourable. 'The master has a fatherly way with the children which they appreciate'.87 'The teacher keeps order by his voice and manner but the children do not seem to be frightened'.88 The Kaikoura bank manager wrote to A. W. Rutherford, member of the House of Representatives for Hurunui electorate, that Comerford was 'a painstaking teacher, and who takes great pride in his native pupils'.89

In 1908 Comerford complained of irregular attendance and asked the department to ask the constable to threaten offending parents. Proceedings were taken against some parents. Bird, who had succeeded Pope, recommended that if attendance did not improve the school should be transferred to the control of an Education Board.90

Comerford, nearing the retiring age of 65, wrote asking to be retained another year: in support of his request he said he had vegetable and flower gardens 'in splendid condition', had bought a horse and gig, built a fowlhouse and reared poultry.91 Gibbes refused. On 16 February 1910 twenty-four parents and residents-seven of them with names recognisably Maoripetitioned James Carroll, Minister of Native Affairs, for the retention of Comerford, 'a gentleman who is so eminently fitted to instruct our children and who has done so much to uplift our settlement'. W. B. Ingram, the proprietor of the Kaikoura Star, forwarded the petition with an accompanying letter. The same twenty-four petitioners wrote to the Minister of Education:

he has given the highest satisfaction, and the scholars under his charge have shown great progress and have always come through their examinations with flying colours. Mr Comer-page 107ford has always been most painstaking with the children to whom he has greatly endeared himself, and we consider that he is just as able and competent a teacher, and just as efficient to carry on his good work in the school, as if he were twenty years younger.

But Gibbes regretted it was not possible. Mrs M. E. Moss was appointed and until she arrived in May 1910, Comerford voluntarily stayed on. There is some irony in the fact that after twelve years of bachelor housekeeping Mrs Moss found the house neglected: she needed a new stove, hearth, and cupboard and a new floor for the scullery; the sitting-room needed re-papering, the chimney needed cleaning and altering; and she wanted a washhouse and bathroom. Comerford had done his washing under a tree in a kerosene tin.

In the community's eyes Lawson must have been a disappointment. If, as a teacher, he was less incompetent than Beck, the children had learned little and he feared their being examined; they had expressed their loss of confidence in him in their absences from school. As a man in the community he had begun on good terms, adopting a familiarity his predecessors had not used, but when the actions of people did not please him, he fell back on authoritarian bluster. His decision to leave the school was an unwitting recognition of the justice of Pope's statement: 'Maoris have as good an idea as most people of what is just and fair, and in the long run they nearly always take the right side. It would seem, then, that a teacher who cannot get on amicably with the Natives, should try to earn a living in some other way.' Both Danaher and Comerford demonstrated the possibility of serving the community while maintaining friendly relations. But for Lawson this would have involved a deeper commitment than he was prepared to make. Yet, as will appear later, the community remembered him for some years afterwards, with more affection than he felt for them.

* I owe this information to J. M. Sherrard, a grandson of McAra.